Red Shipley, Stained Glass Bluegrass Host, Dies
Red Shipley, for half a century the voice of gospel bluegrass in the music's home region, died last night of cancer in Charlottesville. Shipley's legendary Stained Glass Bluegrass program on WAMU in Washington ran from 1982 until last month, when the station removed all of its bluegrass programming.
For half a century, Shipley was a staple on the radio dial and in the hearts of bluegrass fans throughout the Mid-Atlantic states. After graduating from Orange County High School in 1956, Shipley began emceeing at WJMA (named for President James Madison, born in Orange), and from 1966 to 1972, he emceed the 6-10 a.m. show on WKCW in Fauquier County, as The Post's Eugene Scheel wrote a few years ago:
Shipley emceed the National Championship Country Music Contest, held each August from 1960 to 1979 on the shores of Lake Whippoorwill, east of Warrenton. "We often emceed, a little money on the side," Reeder explained. The Warrenton-Fauquier Junior Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event, renting the two-acre pond and its grounds. The winners of the contest included Roy Clark, Patsy Cline, Jimmy Dean and Dean's future wife, Donna Meade.
"Radio lost one of its own legends last night," said Caryn Mathes, WAMU's general manager. "I'm deeply saddened by the news of Red's passing, but grateful that he was able to spend 25 years on the air with us at WAMU, and heartened that he was able to continue doing what he loved for so long."
Here's a Bob Levey column from Feb. 17, 1977 about Red Shipley:
Six in the morning, straight up, Jim Fitzgerald starts reciting the news. His wife is asleep on the hallway couch, her coat over her. And Red Shipley, Washington's king of country music? He's deep into his second cup of coffee, and he looks like he's good for two more.
His eyes are like missile silos - deep, dull and hollow. He was so sleepy when he got going this morning that he forgot the jacket to his gray leisure suit. And he's been looking for that new Mel Tillis record for five minutes; damned if he can find it.
"When you get up at 4:30 in the morning," says Red Shipley, who has been doing it most of his life, "you're a little out of the mainstream of society." Or, more frequently, just plain out of it.
But you know what they say about shows having to go on. The clock in the Alexandria studios of WPIK and WXRA-FM has crept up to 6:04:30. Fitz is winding up the sports scores. One last belt of coffee, and Red Shipley is in the studio in time to hear Fitz's magic handoff: "And now, the best in country continues with Reeeeeeed Shipley!"
In the next three hours, 55 minutes and 30 seconds, Red Shipley will play 47 songs, give away prizes o two commuters, make three hurried trips to the men's room, deal with five telephoned song requests, smoke 18 cigarettes and find 30 different ways to say it'll be fair and warmer.
After 16 1/2 years as the Washington area's most familiar 6:10 a.m. country music disc jockey, Shipley's baritone is still believable when it says, "Rise, shine, feelin' fine." Besides, says Shipley, "It beats the hell out of working for a living."
By his definition, Robert Grant Shipley never has. He is one of those people who knew what he wanted to do when he was 10, started doing it when he was 16 and is still merrily doing it at 39.
"Every once in a while, I see myself sitting next to Barbara Walters," Shipley said. "But, hey, I could have been a farmer, too."
He once was one. As a boy, Shipley "milked five cows by hand every morning" on the family spread in Orange, Va. But by the time he was through high school, he had broken in as a country jock on the local 250-watt AM station. "Everybody in town knew me," Shipley says.
From Orange, Shipley moved on to Manassas, Warrenton and, nearly five years ago, Alexandria. He has been the morning man at each stop. When the arrived at WPIK-WXRA, "we were the 36th most popular station in the Washington market, and there were 33 stations." Now, thanks at least partly to Shipley, the two stations are a solid sixth.
Shipley's studio has country written all over it, at least if you buy the cliches.
On the rear wall hang the following: Photos of four young country lovelies, a National Rifle Association poster, another of pro football quarterback Terry Bradshaw and a calendar showing a fisherman landing a big one. On the desk lamp hang two miniature American flags.
For Shipley, this isn't sham. He is country and a half, and proud of it, brother. He still lives there (Warrenton), and he admits he even listens to country music at home.
If you don't, or haven't lately, you've missed some changes.
Country has long ago outdistanced its standby subjects: heartbreak, truck driving and Jesus. It now deals in such topics as sex, race, alcoholism and politics, usually without fumbling.
Lyrics continue to be appallingly illiterate at times. "Yesterday has ran into tomorrow," insists one song. "Can't get no help from nobody," laments another.
But the music itself has progressed surprisingly far. In the old days, it weren't country if it didn't have no geetar. Now, violins, trombones and other creatures from other planets have they threaten to stay.
Shipley believes the changes have attracted many who formerly listened to nothing but rock.
"As they get a little older, most rock doesn't have much relationship to their lives," Shipley said. "They just don't relate to getting stoned any more."
With that, Shipley breaks off the discussion for at least the dozenth time. The little white light on his console is blinking. Tha means the phone is "ringing." Almost certainly a fan who wants to hear a certain song.
It goes like this, at machine-gun pace:
"Hello, there, darlin' . . . feelin' good . . . If I was feelin' any better I couldn't stand it, darlin' . . . Yeah, oh, yeah, I'm glad to do it . . . fine, fine . . . sure do . . . Yes, Ma'am . . . Yes, indeed . . . OK . . . I'll be looking for it . . . OK, dear."
Throughout the 20 seconds this takes, Shipley has one eye on the record that is playing. He is preparing the next with his non-phone hand. His other eye is on a rack of tape cassettes - his ads.
Suddenly, desperation crosses Shipley's face. The record is ending.
"Gotta run, dear," he barks. Down goes the phone. Up go three switches. "Awwwwright, that was 'Angel With a Broken Wing,'" says Red Shipley, right in timpo. If you were trundling along the Beltway, it would have sounded smooth as silk.
Shipley has only two trademarks, besides his still-red hair. His last words before each song starts are "Hit it, darlin'." And his last words of each broadcast are "thanks to you, and ah-toodle-dee-doo."
"They listen for the music," Shipley explains. "They don't need my dulcet tones, particularly."
Such an approach is appreciated. "He's the best to work with," says Jim Fitzgerald, the morning news and traffic man. "He's forgotten more about country and bluegrass than most people will ever know."
But the hours, ooooo, the hours.
"I don't have a regular time when I go to sleep," Shipley admits. Five hours of sack a night is often more than average, he says. And Shipley's day is far from over after ah-toodle-dee-doo. He is operations manager for WPIK-WXRA as well.
Still, "I hope this is the last job I ever have," said Shipley, as he "cued" the last record of another show. "I'm just happy with the 'Red' and the 'Hit it, darlin'."
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